29 August, 2014

Awe and Wonder

This week has seen the  return of singer Kate Bush to the public eye as, after a break of more than a quarter of a century, she took to the stage in London. Reviews have been ecstatic – both from the media and the general public.  “Awesome”, ““Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! Unbelievable” “The cultural event of the year” were just a few of the comments in the press. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kate Bush – I always have - but when I read that at the opening night of her series of shows “[the] audience spent the the show clapping everything; no gesture is too insignificant to warrant applause” I began to feel a bit uncomfortable. This all seemed a bit over the top. We are, I felt, losing all sense of perspective. Was Kate really “awesome” or simply just a damn good entertainer?
Kate Bush in concert -  entertaining, memorable, enjoyable
 maybe .......but not awesome or unbelievable

 As a person who grew to adulthood through the turmoil and change of the swinging sixties, through Beatlemania, the Rolling Stones and the rest I’ve always liked to think that in my own small way I have been fairly open minded, happy to accept change, be understanding of differing viewpoints on life and in the words of Timothy Leary “Turned on, tuned in and dropped out”!!!!!!!!.  But as I get older I find myself increasingly looking at the world with a different perspective and feeling that as a society we are losing something.  That just maybe, as we find more  and more things “awesome” and “the events of the year” – be they a cup of coffee in Starbucks or the return of a singer who had a few hits over 30 years ago, we are in danger of losing our sense of proportion and, more importantly, something indefinable that goes to the very core of our humanity. I have oft argued that the words that we use are critical; it is through words that we express ideas, emotions, ideals, our innermost world. It is by words that we inspire or terrify. it is by words that we understand and are understood - words are what separate us from the animal kingdom. When we become sloppy in our use of words then our ideas and values become sloppy too - and to use words like "awesome", "fantastic" or "unbelievable" to describe the ordinary and prosaic puts us in danger of marginalising and trivialising humanity.
York Minster does indeed make one feel very small - awesome

These misgivings of mine might have many facets but in particular I have increasingly felt that society is both trivialising and at the same time losing its sense of awe and wonder. In the hard-nosed, in your face world that we now inhabit we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Our  computer games, TV and cinema screens are often filled with gratuitous violence making us largely insensitive and insentient to what one might call "finer feelings". And at the same time everything, it increasingly seems, is viewed on a superficial level. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and the stiff upper lip of yesteryear seems long gone (and maybe a good thing too) but this has merely translated into the banal and the  superficial:  we live in a world where soft fluffy toys fill the hearts and minds, we weep and leave flowers when someone quite unknown to us dies (Princess Diana?), we use words like “amazing”, “incredible”, “fantastic” and the rest about very ordinary things. And then we move on and forget as quickly as we have been moved – our emotions waiting for the next “awesome” lift or the next celebrity death to mawkishly weep over. As someone once said to me, "Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper" – very true. Will the wonderful Kate Bush judged so “awesomely” this week be similarly judged a few years down the line? I read today that on the strength of her concert reviews she now has eight records in the top twenty - something never achieved by a woman before and bettered only by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. I'm delighted for her, it justifies my purchasing Wuthering Heights all those years ago - but where were all these fans before? By its very nature the top twenty is transient with new "records" being broken all the time. For me this merely proves my point we cannot distinguish between the truly awesome and great and the simply good and enjoyable.Will those who snapped up the tickets and “applauded her every movement and gesture” or as a result of the hype and the media frenzy went out and bought a record still be playing that record six months down the line or be quite so impressed and overcome in the cold light of another day? Maybe, maybe not. But in my view truly awesome and wonderful things are not transient but stand the test of time – they are part of human existence and can be recognised as such. They are not simply things to be enjoyed or impressed – indeed, in some cases they might not be to one’s liking or approval - but they have  qualities that will separate them from the merely good or excellent or even inspiring. 

These matters  were, in a small way, brought home to me last week when Pat and I visited a much loved place, York. We wandered into the mighty York Minster – and immediately my eyes went up to the ceiling high above us. I am not an overly religious person but immediately sensed a very tangible feeling of awe – that this mighty place has stood for so many hundreds of years and so many have invested their life and work and religious beliefs in it. As we walked around we visited a wonderful exhibition in the crypt of the Minster’s history and some of its many treasures. At one point along the walls there were inscribed various quotations made by different people over the ages and relating to the Minster, one said exactly how I felt. It was, I think, written by someone who worked at the Minster in some capacity and said that this person loved to stand in the silent Minster, perhaps in the evening, and look at its mighty vastness and soak in its atmosphere and history – it reminded him or her of how very small he/she was in the great scheme of things. That is awe and wonder – and I could relate exactly to what was written. As I stood in the half darkness of the crypt and read this I was reminded of my great friend and mentor David Towne who died almost exactly two years ago  (http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/a-good-teacher-is-like-candle-it.html ). I know that when David and his wife visited the Grand Canyon some years ago he shed a silent tear that he should be there and be overwhelmed by its magnificence and his smallness in the great scheme of things. To feel that is, I believe, to be human and sadly, in this harsh, driven, superficial world is something that I believe we are losing as we look for the next transient “thrill” or “challenge” or “awesome experience”.
Joachim & Anna

Of course, what moves people and inspires a sense of awe and wonder will vary from person to person. But in my view there will be certain common characteristics. For example, it will not be superficial or transient – I have visited York Minster and similar such places many times – and each time can be equally uplifted or reminded of my smallness in time space. It is not about high or low culture – I can be equally moved by certain pieces of popular music as I can with some of the great classics. It is, I believe, a personal, intimate response and not driven by the crowd.  It cannot be switched on and off, nor can it be prevented – in other words, you have no control over it. And finally, it will go to the very core of your humanity and remind you what it is to be human.

This last point was illustrated well when last year Pat and I visited the wonderful city of Amsterdam for a few days. A major reason for going was to visit the newly re-opened Rijksmuseum. Like thousands of others we were intent on seeing works of the great Dutch masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. We saw all those and marvelled at this wonderful building – truly one of the great institutions of the modern world. But in fact it was one small unexpected thing that  made our visit truly memorable. At the start of our visit, before we reached the galleries of the great Dutch masters we entered a small room filled with items from the late middle ages and the first thing we saw as we entered the room was a small, carved wooden statue made in about 1470. The carver was unknown but as Pat looked at it she quietly cried. It was a statue of Joachim and Anna. Pat did not know who they were – I did, I had told their story many times in school assemblies over the ears.
Pat with Henry Moor at Compton Verney

Joachim and Anna were, it is written, the Grandparents of Jesus – the mother and father of Mary. Joachim and Anna had been married for fifty years, and were barren. They lived devoutly and quietly, using only a third of their income for themselves and giving a third to the poor and a third to the Temple. Joachim had done this since he was 15-years-old, and God multiplied his flocks, so the couple were well provided for. They longed for a child but remained childless into their old age. When they were in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice to God, the High Priest upbraided Joachim, "You are not worthy to offer sacrifice with those childless hands." Others who had children jostled Joachim, thrusting him back as unworthy. In despair, he consulted the records of the tribes of Israel and discovered every righteous man in the nation had been blessed with children, except him. This caused Joachim great grief, and he and his wife left with heavy hearts.  Joachim took his flocks and went to a high mountain, refusing to return home in shame. Meanwhile, Anna prayed in her garden. God sent the Archangel Gabriel to each of them, who gave them tidings of the birth of "a daughter most blessed, by whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed, and through whom will come the salvation of the world." Each promised to have their child raised in the Temple as a holy vessel of God. The archangel told Joachim to return home, where he would find his wife waiting for him in the city gate. Anna he told to wait at the gate. When they saw one another, they embraced.

The little statue is a depiction of their embrace. As we looked at it, not as a great work of art, but a simple depiction of a very intimate moment that spoke volumes of the story behind the couple it seemed to go the very essence of what it is to be human. It was pure and simple awe and wonder. When we left the museum we clutched in our hands a souvenir – an exact replica of the little statue which now sits on our lounge table and which each time I look at it still quietly overwhelms me.

The Burghers of Calais by Rodin
It was a similar story a few days ago when we visited  a wonderful place near Stratford on Avon -  Compton Verney. This is a mansion now an art gallery with wonderful exhibitions and lovely walks around the grounds. In particular there was an exhibition of the works of the two of the world's great sculptors Henry Moore and Auguste Rodin. These two artists are very different but both were able to express that same simple quality that touches humanity.The work of Moore,  seemingly simple but evocative and tactile. So much so that Pat could not resist putting put her hand to feel the smooth lines and surfaces. The work of Rodin was both inspiring and reflective. To get up close to the faces of the Burghers of Calais and see the anguish, pain  and fear on their faces as they face execution, the nooses already round their necks, in order to save the population of their city from English king Edward III's threat to lay the city to waste  is humanity at its most extreme. Truly awesome.

The written word can also not only move us but get to the very core of our humanity. For me, I only have to read the words of Lincoln’s great Gettysburg Address to feel that tingle. I know most of the words, I know that the speech was carefully but hurriedly concocted by Lincoln and is not long. It was delivered whilst he himself was very unwell, but to the people of the time and through the intervening years it speaks to millions irrespective of their nationality or age. Its language is simple, its ideas uncomplicated but it gets to the very heart of what it meant to a nation to be embroiled in a terrible struggle and how and why the fallen should be honoured and remembered. It spoke to every individual American and to the young nation as a whole. It is not alone: Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech”  still has the capacity to move and inspire, the simple words appealing for democracy of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough in the Putney debates of 1647: ...I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under....”. And so the list goes on – all inspiring, ageless and timeless, appealing to man’s basic humanity, truly full of full of “awe and wonder”

And finally, music. Some years ago, on one of our visits to the wonderful city of Leipzig to attend a Bach concert we went to the Thomaskirche in the afternoon. We were due to attend the concert– Bach’s glorious B Minor Mass - there in the evening. We thought we would walk around the church and, once again, as thousands do every day and we had done before, pay homage at Bach’s tomb. I opened the church door and was hit by the most glorious sound – the choir practising for the concert – the wonderful “Dona Nobis Pacem" from the Mass, one of the world’s very great works (see video, recorded in the Thomaskirche, above). It stopped me in my tracks, I have played the piece thousands of times but each time it still overpowers me and makes me feel very small.  As I sit writing this blog it plays in the background and is just as inspiring and full of awe and wonder as the first time I heard it. It is the same with other works that speak to us: Beethoven’s great finale to the Ninth Symphony or at a completely different level one of the world’s most beautiful pieces of music with words that I defy anyone not to respond to Henry Purcell’s “Fairest Isle, All Isles Excelling” for his opera “King Arthur”. This piece is my alarm on my mobile phone – it  reminds me when I have to take my medication each day - and no matter how many times I hear it, the hairs on my neck tingle, I am filled with “awe and wonder” at the sheer beauty of the music and words - see video below.

My list here is personal, others may be moved in different ways and with different things. But it is part of the human condition that we can respond to those basic aspects of humanity and existence to remind ourselves of what and who we are - as the unknown writer in York Minster commented, to remind us of how very small we are in the great scheme of things. This is awe and wonder and it is something that in our transient, hardnosed and superficial world we are in great danger of losing. Our age is filled with violent computer images, gratuitous films and TV, sloppy use of language and a society that considers an unmade bed thrown together by an alleged artist, Tracey Emin, to be worthwhile and good. Given that back drop we are becoming desensitised, increasingly unable to discriminate what is worthy and what truly is awesome and wonderful. By very definition “awe and wonder” is personal, but it will be felt to the core of one’s being. As a society I believe that we are increasingly losing the ability to feel deep rooted, core feelings of compassion, beauty, empathy, place and value – and substituting instead transient, banal hype so that we “applaud every movement and gesture”  and describe cups of coffee or pop concerts as “awesome”. And that is worrying for us all.

20 August, 2014

The Rich Man in His Castle...........

Blogging has been on the back burner for the past week or three. I have been suffering from a very painful bout of lower back/sciatic pain which has somewhat laid me out – both physically and mentally - and we have had a week away in Devon with our granddaughters. Hopefully, things are very slowly improving so it’s back to the computer.

This morning Pat and I spent an hour “harvesting” the many thousands of plums on our two plum trees in the garden. Our little group of houses is built on the site of what was once, a century ago, the orchard of the village squire’s house so most of the houses in our road have the residue of that orchard – in our case two plum trees. As we pruned, sorted, cursed and sweated under the hot August sun the words of a much sung children’s hymn – “All things Bright and Beautiful” kept running through my mind – and especially the words of one of the verses:

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,−

He made them every one:

The police come visiting Sunningdale -
and  they didn't use the poor door!
Our garden was indeed full of very ripe fruit – far too many for us to use, hopefully our neighbours will help us to use up the plum harvest. It has been a bumper year!

And then more of the words of that hymn, which I have sung so many times in my years as a primary school teacher, ran through my mind:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

The home of Oscar Pistorius  - behind secure walls
to keep out the lower orders. Trouble is  the residents
may be more dangerous than those outside! 
The hymn, written in the mid nineteenth century by Mrs C.F Alexander, reminds children to give thanks for all the great benefits bestowed by God upon them and that verse about the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate seems to remind everyone of their place in the world and how things must be ordered in the great scheme of things. All very Victorian.

“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate” - these words had wondered across my thoughts as I reflected upon a couple of things that I had read during the week. Firstly, a week or so ago there was considerable media comment in the UK about an increasing trend in London – and indeed in other major cities across the world, most notably New York – for high end, expensive apartment blocks to have what are called “poor doors” for the use of the not so well off. In the UK there is legislation in place that stipulates that in any new building development there often has to be a proportion of the properties built which are “more affordable” – to allow those not so well off to find a property. Plans for new developments will only be passed if they show that the correct proportion of “cheaper” units is built in. Obviously property developers try to meet this requirement, but, it appears they also increasingly ensure that those “poorer” people are kept separate from the wealthy residents by having separate entrances and exits – ”poor doors” as they have become known as. It brings a whole new slant to Mrs Alexander’s hymn – and reminds us that just as in her time the rich man will indeed not wish to mix with the lower orders – whoever they are - "the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate"!
Shoulder to shoulder, all equal - part of the Golden Temple dining hall

This is not new. Increasingly in this country and especially in the USA there has been a huge growth in recent years of what are called “gated communities” – high end property,  where only those of a certain type and standing can and will mix. Where security is often paramount and where those resident in those communities have to (and are happy to) subscribe to the rules of living in that community in order that their way of life is protected and that they do not mix with those of lesser stature, wealth or different outlook. It is a frightening reminder of how divisive western societies – and especially those in the UK and the USA - are becoming. It is, it seems, the ultimate extension of “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate” – and never the twain shall meet.
I thought about this during last week when a second item caught my attention. The TV news was filled with pictures of police cars sweeping into the gated community in Sunningdale, Berkshire where the pop star Cliff Richard lives. Sunningdale is one of the most opulent areas of the UK where only the very rich and famous reside – everything from Royal Princes and Prinesses to Russian oligarchs to Premiership footballer and pop stars. This is very much a case of the “rich man in his castle” – complete with security drawbridge! Sadly, however, it seems buying oneself exclusive security and opulence doesn’t necessary protect you from the seamier side of life – the police still come and call! The TV screens were filled with a convoy of unmarked police cars sweeping through the gates to search Sir Cliff Richard’s home because of, as yet, unsubstantiated allegations of paedophilia. And it was a similar story a few months ago in Pretoria, South Africa where the gated community home of athlete Oscar Pistorius  became the centre of police activity and world media attention after Pistorius shot his girl friend. I’m sure that the other residents of these high end “communities” never envisaged that they would be so closely involved with these rather sordid aspects of life - they have, after all, paid a lot of money to protect themselves from such unseemly people and things. These are the sorts of things after all that are only supposed to happen with the “lower orders” who should be kept at arms length and use the “poor door”!
Mrs Bhopal does her "service"

Having said that, the very term “community” has certain implications. The usually accepted definition of “community” is along the lines of  “the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common” or  "a group of people that I share values, activities, hopes and dreams with". Presumably anyone who buys into a gated community or a high end apartment with a poor door only wants to mix with those similar to him or her – not with lesser individuals.  Of course that all begs the question that if the word “community” implies people of similar interests and aspirations then where do these similar interests and aspirations begin and end? Can we assume that these "shared values" promoted and protected in the gated community and the exclusive apartment block meant only for the wealthy perhaps include a  bit of shooting one's girl friend or indulging oneself in whatever turns you on?  In short, are those who crave high end security, seclusion and separation from the hoi polloi  just as  likely to be as sordid and unpleasant than the masses forced to use the poor doors or to stand outside the gates? It certainly seems likely if recent media reports are anything to go by! Mmmmmm......”the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate”.

All this was given a new twist a couple of days ago when I was sorting out some of the many thousands of photographs that I have on my computer. I came across the albums of our visit to India a few years ago. Now, no-one would argue that India is any kind of nirvana – the poverty and vast social, cultural , economic and religious differences that are apparent everywhere one goes in that wonderful country are indisputable. But the photographs I glanced through reminded me of two events that seem a million miles away from gated communities, poor doors and the rest. They also, I believe, make a damning indictment of the divisive culture that we are creating in the west – and especially in the UK and USA.
Washing up time in Amritsar

When in Amritsar we visited the Sikh Golden Temple with its wonderful “dining hall”. We were with two fellow travellers, themselves Sikhs – Mr & Mrs Bhopal. They were from England and visiting, pilgrim like, the Golden Temple – the spiritual home of their religion. We entered the awe inspiring great dining hall where thousands of people sat, cross legged eating from metal plates – a simple but nourishing meal. Row upon row of these people stretched into the distance. On the edge of the hall great vats of rice were being cooked and men stirring it with huge wooden oars – almost like a Disney cartoon. I asked  Mr Bhopal if all these people were Sikhs to which he replied “No – anyone can eat here and be given hospitality – the only requirement is that you sit shoulder to shoulder with the next person – you may be a prince or a beggar but we are all the same” . Looking back it seems now a long way from “poor doors” and gated communities. Mrs Bhopal meanwhile excused herself – explaining that she wished to go and do “her service.”  We watched as she joined a group of women sitting in a circle in one of the dining hall’s alcoves making chapattis to be fed to the thousands. It was her way of doing a bit for others – be they princes or beggars. Above us, hanging from the ceiling were great banners reminding those in the hall of their responsibilities to care for and feed others. A far cry this from the divisiveness that is increasingly permeating western society. I don’t suppose many of the wealthy inhabitants of prestigious apartments and gated communities care too much about those who are required to use the “poor doors” so that they are hidden from the view of those movers and shakers of our society.

Getting ready for the next serving - and no one
 - be he prince or beggar - is left to stand outside 
the gate or forced to use the poor door. All are welcome
to be fed.
And at the end of our trip to Amritsar we caught the train back to Delhi. A long journey of several hours and when our train at last pulled into the station we were met by a taxi from our hotel. As we drove through the darkened Delhi streets the driver asked if we had enjoyed our trip? Did we like India? What memories would we have when we returned to England? Pat replied we would always remember with affection the warm welcome that we had received wherever we went and whoever we met. It was true. “Ah! said the taxi driver – that’s good but you must remember that in India we believe that we must always welcome and be kind to everyone.  We don’t know if that person who comes to our door is a beggar or a prince or a God – so we must be kind and welcoming to all”!

As I say, a long way from “poor doors” and gated communities – I am sometimes ashamed of what we in the UK (and maybe other places) are becoming. Maybe we should all be ashamed.